Guest post by Melanie Schrader, an active volunteer with the St. Louis chapter of Autism Speaks.
Being a working mom, especially a single working mom, can be difficult for anyone. Being a working mother and having a child on the autism spectrum has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of my life. This is my story.
I have an incredible son who is 6 years old, and his name is Sidney. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 2. For the next year, I managed to continue working full-time while spending four nights a week involved in Sidney’s intensive therapy sessions. He had speech, occupational, developmental and ABA therapy. It was grueling to see him struggle. It was also extremely rewarding. He overcame many developmental challenges. But we still had a long road ahead of us.
At the age of 3, Sidney started attending our school district’s Early Childhood program. This required finding after school care for a few hours. But of course that care required someone who could handle his special needs.
We went through four high-school seniors and six in-home and private daycare centers. They simply weren’t equipped to deal with his needs … or simply didn’t give him a chance.
As you might expect, Sidney had difficulty with any changes in his routine. But the incessant bouncing around from one care situation to another completely broke my heart.
I just wanted someone to give him a chance. Needless to say, this interfered with my work schedule. I had no choice but to leave work and pick him up in times of meltdown. Unfortunately, employers can be less than forgiving when it comes to these circumstances.
Eventually, I applied for unpaid time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). My employer, a large healthcare provider in the St. Louis area, granted me FMLA eligibility, but on a restricted basis. I was granted unpaid leave only when Sidney had a total meltdown.
But as any parent of a child on the spectrum knows, when my child was ill or needed special services, I couldn’t leave it to just anyone to take care of those needs. Essentially, I lost my job when I had to take two days off to care for my son when he developed a viral illness that prevented him from attending school or daycare. This put me at four unexcused absences in a year and became grounds in my termination. I was devastated.
I had a great job. I had wonderful benefits that allowed me to take care of Sidney and myself without worry for our healthcare needs. I worked extra to make up for the time I needed to care for Sidney. That extra work simply wasn’t recognized when it came down to keeping my job.
Moving forward, I am still trying to get back to where I was career-wise. That was a year ago. I have had one job that I worked as a “filler.” That paid less than half of what I was making before. And they were equally unforgiving, if not worse, when it came to my son.
I have applied for hundreds of positions, and I’ve had three interviews. I am more than qualified for many of these jobs. Yet I still can’t seem to get anywhere. There’s always the inevitable question of doom: “What happened with your last job?”
I’ve sought advice from recruiters and friends who work in human resources. The truth is, there is no good answer. I simply need to be given a chance. My son and I need the security of a job with benefits. I won’t give up. I can’t give up. It’s all about taking care of my child, whatever it takes.
Editor’s note: We deeply thank Ms. Schrader for helping us put a “real face” on today's research news on autism’s impact on mothers’ income and employment.